My sister, a mother to five children, was having a particularly difficult day of parenting. Giving in to the frustration and feelings of powerlessness, she raised her voice at her children, slammed a few doors, and angrily stomped her feet on every step as she made her way down the stairs. And amid her meltdown, she happened to look up. Hanging on the staircase wall was the most peaceful portrait of Mary, the Immaculate Conception. My sister paused, took in a long, deep breath, and exclaimed, “What are you looking at? You had one kid, and He was perfect!”
It can feel this way, can’t it? We can try to make excuses for our sin because Jesus was perfect (and how can we live up to that!), and we could make the same excuse that Mary was also perfect. Surely, if you or I were conceived without the stain of original sin, we would never raise our voices at our children! We would float around the house in a flowy blue dress, hands folded in prayer, wearing a permanent smile while smelling like roses! Unfortunately, Eve messed everything up. My sin is her fault. Not mine. And honestly? Who can relate to Mary, anyway? That’s an impossible standard that leaves me feeling more discouraged and hopeless than I already feel. Obedience to God was easier for Mary.
That’s what I used to think. Until Mary appeared to me.
She didn’t appear in the way that you might think. I didn’t have a vision of Our Lady. She didn’t show up in my laundry room floating on a cloud. And yet, she has been profoundly present. She has been the quiet comfort when pierced with the sword of a life I did not plan. She has been the gentle nudge in the right direction when fear and anxiety tempt me to choose my way. She has been the warm embrace when I find myself staring at another prayer having gone (seemingly) unanswered. She is the presence of something greater to come when life in this world feels weary and bleak. And maybe you are wondering how I can be so sure this is Mary if I have not seen her with my eyes? It’s a good and fair question. And I have a good and fair answer.
Mary, the Immaculate Conception, whose feast we celebrate today, is as Father Peter Cameron writes, “the living, breathing conception of God’s ineffable goodness, truth, beauty, fidelity, compassion, justice, mercy, peace and love.” The closer I grow in relationship with Mary, the closer I grow in relationship with her Son. And this, my friends, is what our faith is all about. Relationship. It is the very thing the serpent went after to destroy in the garden of Eden and what God ingeniously restored through the Immaculate Conception of Mary. The very grace and holiness that God offered to Mary is offered to us as well, and it is through the Immaculate Conception that we are invited back into relationship with God! You might be wondering how. How does one get to this level of grace and holiness? How does one foster a relationship with God the Father and Mary the Blessed Mother? The answer is prayer.
Let me ask. Do you hate that answer? Do you find it unhelpful? Because I used to. I knew I was supposed to be praying, I just wasn’t sure how. Plus, I am a perfectionist and a control freak and wanted some kind of "in my hands" proof that what I was doing was right. And while God doesn’t give prayer receipts to shove in the back of my Bible as evidence, I have discovered something that is even more effective and gratifying than a paper receipt. Prayer journaling. In my closet, I have a stack of over twenty journals filled with the longings, sorrows, joys, and hopes of my heart (give or take a few grocery lists). These empty pages are where I dump it all out—the clutter and the fear and all the things that tempt my mind to wander when I sit down for some quiet time with the Lord. Once I have unraveled my mind, I can be fully present to God, offering Him an open heart, ready to receive. Prayer journaling, which I believe is prompted by the Blessed Mother, has been my guide into a deeper relationship with the Lord.
Why do I say prompted by the Blessed Mother? Because Mary pondered. Mary thought deeply about the circumstances in her life. Mary considered all things and treasured them in her heart. Mary held every situation up against the backdrop of God’s promises, which she knew to be true. This is precisely what happens when I prayer journal! More than a list of wants and needs I hand over to the Lord, journaling allows me to create a sacred space of receptivity. It allows me to sort out the lies in my head, guiding me to the truth of who God is. As Lisa Brenninkmeyer writes, “prayer journaling is how I transition from my perspective to His.” Who lived life from God’s perspective better than Mary?
I had a parenting day similar to the one my sister had just the other day. I was sideswiped by a child in crisis, and those familiar feelings of powerlessness and frustration got the best of me. I can honestly say I was free-falling fast into despair; my worst case scenario thoughts steering me straight into a brick wall. And then Mary appeared to me. No, not in a vision, but as a gift in my mailbox! The new Walking with Purpose guided prayer journal, Praying from the Heart, miraculously arrived at the moment I needed it. (Because moms are like that. They anticipate their children’s needs.) And I wish we could sit face to face over a cup of coffee and pore over the pages of this journal together, because, my friend, it is unlike anything you have ever seen. If Our Lady were to create and use a journal, this would be it! And on this Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, you can bet that my first entry will start with praise and adoration for a God who loves me so much to give me such a mother as Mary. As Father Cameron so beautifully says, “In Mary the Immaculate Conception we are given a corrected conception of the image of God: The Mother takes all our fear away in the way that only a mother can.”
Thank you, Immaculate Mary, for always looking out for me, taking all my fear away, and guiding me to pray from the heart.
 Father Peter Cameron, Mysteries Of The Virgin Mary: Living Our Lady’s Graces, (Servant Books, 2010), p. 17.
 Lisa Brenninkmeyer, Praying from the Heart: Guided Journal, (Walking With Purpose, 2020), p. 4.
 Father Peter Cameron, Mysteries Of The Virgin Mary: Living Our Lady’s Graces, (Servant Books, 2010), p. 17.
As long as I can remember, I've journaled my prayers. This is how I start my time with God each day. Some people consider journaling a form of naval-gazing. I've looked at it differently; it's the way I bring my feelings and emotions to the surface and ask God to heal and order them. I know He wants a relationship with my real self- not some artificial, cleaned up version of me. When He longs to see me walk in freedom, He knows that it's going to involve my heart, not just my behavior.
A good friend of mine shared the questions she was prayerfully journaling each day, and I decided to give them a try. Most of the questions were thought provoking and interesting to pray through. But one stopped me in my tracks, because I didn't know how to answer. The question: “What are you dreaming about right now?” I wracked my brain. What was I hoping for personally? What was I dreaming might be in the future for me? I couldn't think of anything, and that felt really weird and somehow wrong.
It wasn't that I wasn't praying and hoping for anything. But I was cautious when it came to praying big dreams. That didn't feel safe. That felt like I was setting myself up for disappointment. And wasn't it selfish to think about myself? It felt wiser to keep my eyes on reality and stay away from the land of possibilities. I felt too aware of all the things that could go wrong to trust that God might want to do something beyond my wildest imaginings.
This isn't the only area in my life where I've noticed my hope is running on fumes. There are people I have loved and prayed for years, asking God to break through the walls of their disbelief and to draw them to Himself. And nothing has changed. From what I can see, they are just as closed off and disinterested in Him today as they were the day I started praying. And my prayers for them are becoming less frequent. I'm starting to give up because they aren't progressing according to my timetable. I start to wonder why I am bothering. I've started to listen to the lie that things are never going to change.
The truth is, it can be hard to find hope. Some of you know what I'm talking about. You've prayed for something and believed with all your heart that God will come through for you. And then you wait. And all you hear is silence. And all you feel is discouragement. And the promise in John 14:14 (“Ask anything of me in my name, I will do it”) starts to feel like a cruel joke, a bait and switch. So our hearts grow a little bit cynical. We don't want to be naïve. We're smarter than that. We can see the obstacles. We're very good at assessing our reality, and adjusting our expectations accordingly.
There's nothing wrong with seeing things as they truly are, but when we lose the ability to see life through eyes of faith and limitless possibility, our hearts harden against God. Our trust in Him weakens. Bitterness can set in. We may continue to pray, but our prayers become mechanical. Our hearts aren't engaged. We're going through the motions.
So how can we learn it's not hard to find hope again?
The journey back to hope begins with taking a close look at the heart of the Father.
Is our Father's heart for us? Does He love us with the kind of attention that cares about every detail of our lives? Is He only concerned with us as an “end product of holiness” or does He care about our passion and purpose, too? Does He care how we feel in the midst of our struggle, or is He just waiting for us to learn the lessons that come from hard knocks?
Lean in close here and listen, because this is a truth we need to grasp deep… your Father loves to give. He waits to be asked. Perhaps He is whispering to you the words of James 4:2 (NIV), “You do not have because you do not ask God.” He wants you to come to Him like a little child. Think about the way that children ask. They ask for the moon. They don't stop to think about what is possible. And how do most parents respond to those requests? We want to give. We stop to make sure that what is asked for is for their good, and when it is, we want to move heaven and earth to give it.
“If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him?” (Matthew 7:11)
The journey back to knowing it's not hard to find hope begins with taking a close look at the heart of the Father.
Your Father has already proven that He is for you. He has already proven that He will hold nothing back if it's for your good. You only need to look at the cross to see the proof of His love.
But keep looking. The cross isn't the only place you can see evidence of your Father's heart. Where have you seen evidence of Him taking care of you? What answers to prayer have you experienced today? Open your eyes.
Cultivating a spirit of gratitude will help you to keep your eyes on the heart of the Father and His never-ending involvement in your life. It will break the hold of cynicism on your heart. It will open you up to the possibility of hoping again. It will give you the courage to dream. And in doing so, you'll come to know your Father's heart.
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13)
Note: This is part one of a two-part series on turning our hearts to heaven when we feel it is hard to find hope. The second part can be found here.
*This post first appeared on the WWP website in November 2014.